On Tuesday, the Kenyon Review hosted its first virtual event of the month: a Winter Evening of Words and Songs, featuring award-winning artists Saeed Jones, Shira Erlichman and Ross Gay.
The event featured a number of co-sponsors, including Kenyon College’s Black Student Union, Office of the President and Department of African Diaspora Studies. It was funded through grant proposals from Associate Professors of English Jené Schoenfeld and Orchid Tierney.
“What began with a hope to bring one artist for a reading turned into the idea of a virtual evening with multiple artists,” said Elizabeth Dark, the Kenyon Review’s associate director of programs and head of the Kenyon Review Reading Series. Dark explained the factors that contributed to choosing artists. They specifically focused on writers who are “being taught in Kenyon’s classrooms, whose books are on our students’ nightstands, and what writers are coming up in conversations across campus.”
Kicking off the event with poet Audre Lourde’s famous sentiment that “poetry is not a luxury,” Kenyon Review Editor-in-Chief Nicole Terez Dutton reminded the attendees that poetry is essential to survival.
Saeed Jones, a prolific writer and poet from Columbus, Ohio was the evening’s first presenter. He shared that many of his poems were inspired by his grief, which guided him to reflect on the history of racial injustice in America. Jones admitted that sharing his work as a passionate activist can be difficult. He said that because of his identity as a Black and queer artist, people often expect him to talk about Black History Month. Most of his performance, Jones noted, was driven by his “Black History Month angst.”
Shira Erlichman, author, visual artist and musician from Brooklyn, New York, shared both poetry and original songs. While some of her work is inspired by her own experiences with mental illness, she is cautious to label her work as a product of it. “I’m shepherded into conversations about mania or depression as modes of production, which is a deeply capitalist way of looking at illness,” she said.
Ross Gay, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, concluded the reading with an excerpt from his poem, “Be Holding,” which examines basketball player Julius Erving’s famous acrobatic scoop-dunk. Gay says that after reading his work, some of his readers feel a personal connection to him as an author. “I think it’s useful for us [writers] to consider that what we do not always consider personal might actually be personal, and vice versa,” he said.
During a Q&A at the end of the reading, the readers were asked how their poetry navigated the past, particularly America’s racial history. All of the artists agreed that writing poetry not only helps themselves to confront difficult issues, but brings thoughts about such uncomfortable issues to the readers’ attention. “Politics, racism, sexism loves to conquer ties,” Erlichman said. “It loves to create ice out of river and I think that poetry does an incredible job of melting that and creating a more queer investigation of what it really is to fucking be here.”
While the Kenyon Review has worked hard to maintain the intimacy of its reading series, the online setting certainly does not replicate the in-person experience. However, the virtual setting has allowed for the series to reach a larger literary audience, and Dark does not think virtual readings will completely go away, even after the pandemic is over.
A recording of the event will be available to the public next week on the Kenyon Review’s YouTube channel. The next event in the series will feature a reading and Q&A with writer Geetha Iyer on Feb. 23 at 7 p.m.